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The sort of accolades that come in the wake of any mention of author George Saunders would seem like hyperbole in another context.
He is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship “genius” grant, has been a finalist for the prestigious PEN/Hemingway and STORY prizes, and this year Time magazine called him one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
The author of four collections of short stories — CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), Pastoralia (2000), In Persuasion Nation (2006), and Tenth of December (2013) — along with a pair of novellas and a collection of essays, Saunders is the rare literary star who manages to cross over into mainstream culture.
Entertainment Weekly — not exactly a bastion of high-brow art — called him one of the 100 most creative people in entertainment. And his commencement speech on kindness at Syracuse University this year has received more than 1 million online views.
All of this finds Saunders coming to the University of Toledo for the 24th annual Richard M. Summers Memorial Lecture Monday as a hot commodity in both literature and pop culture.
“We’re really lucky to have him come here,” said Ben Stroud a UT English professor who helped organize the visit. “This is like having Hemingway or Faulkner come to Toledo because that’s what his stature is like.”
Indeed. The New York Times Magazine earlier this year wrote a lengthy profile of Saunders under the headline “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year” quoting such luminaries as Junot Diaz and Tobias Wolff on his brilliance.
“There’s no one who has a better eye for the absurd and dehumanizing parameters of our current culture of capital,” Diaz told the Times. “But then the other side is how the cool rigor of his fiction is counterbalanced by this enormous compassion. Just how capacious his moral vision is sometimes gets lost, because few people cut as hard or deep as Saunders does.”
Stroud said Saunders, a former geophysicist who has taught creative writing at Syracuse for 16 years, “does things that no other writer can seem to do” as he tackles American culture, the absurdity of “corporate think,” and other aspects of our daily lives.
“He goes places where with other writers it would be sentimental, but with him it’s not,” Stroud said.
Saunders, who is 54 and lives in New York with his wife and daughters, took time to answer a series of questions from The Blade via email:
Q. In your essay on Kurt Vonnegut you gave an eloquent description of what you think of as the relationship between a writer and the reader, using the image of black box that the reader enters in one frame of mind at the beginning of the story and leaves in another when he is finished reading it. That seems like a high standard to set for your work and I wonder how you know when you may have achieved that with a story?
A. It’s really kind of a feeling in the gut — a bit, maybe, like painting oneself out of a room. You look back and everything seems right, except for that bit right by the door. I do a lot of rewriting and there’s always a feeling near the end, kind of like: “Well, up to this last page, I approve this message.”
Q. Your graduation speech this year was a wonderful, nuanced message about kindness. Of all the things you could have spoken about, why did you feel that was so important and what sort of reactions have you received to it?
A. The reaction has been astonishing — around a million hits on the NY Times site, I believe. I’d originally written a version of that speech for our daughter’s middle-school graduation, so I think maybe some of the frankness and intimacy was conveyed. Also, I think most people, by a certain point in their lives, realize that there’s the surface stuff (the work, the accomplishment, the racing around trying not to be left behind) and there’s the more profound understory (loved ones die, people suffer silently, we all fear being alone, and so on). So that little speech was really just me saying: “Look, as you go off into the world, trust me, the understory is the only real one. You will learn this eventually, so get started on it now.” With maybe a little trace of sadness because it’s taken me so long to realize that.
Q. A common observation on your work is that it reflects some kind of an idea of a “dystopian” future or present. How optimistic do you feel about the future?
A. Honestly, I’ve never really agreed with that dystopian tag. I set some stories in a (sort of) future, but that’s just to get to the good stuff quicker, i.e., the stuff about human tendencies. I consider myself to be writing about right now or, even better, about the eternal human weirdnesses: ego and hubris and desire and so forth. But sometimes to really see those things, it’s fun to put up a kind of funhouse mirror.
Q. You’ve talked about your affection for the work of Mark Twain and especially Vonnegut, both satirists. What do you think the role should be of a satirist? For example, if the reader of a piece of satire is going to go in that black box that you talked about, how different should she be when she comes out?
A. You know, I don’t really consider Twain or Vonnegut pure satirists. I think they are both very astute and emotional writers of very serious fiction, who use the comic impulse to get at the deep truths. Both wrote pieces that were more overtly satirical (humor pieces and political pieces and so on) but I remember and love them for the big-hearted novels. So I think that person coming out of the black box would emerge some percentage more awake — sort of freshly alive to the beauty and strangeness of the world. It’s a temporary effect but for a little while, the reader is newly appreciative of the conundrum of being alive. With those two writers, what really strikes me is their honesty — so that has an energizing effect. We come out of that box sort of promising never again to be such an easy mark for lies or falseness, maybe.
Q. Do you have any thoughts on how much your work resonates with readers because your life experiences are very much those of many people? For example, in the New York Times interview you said, “It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.” That is very much a description of the gap between the haves and have nots in our country, but it’s also personal for you.
A. Yes, well, I think that’s a very American experience, don’t you? We are somehow told that to win is proof of some sort of innate goodness; that wealth is an indicator of merit and so on. But all we have to do is look around to see that this isn’t true. People inherit fortunes; corporations rig the game so that the rich get richer; wonderful, capable people lose their jobs and suffer all of the attendant difficulties, often for no other reason than that some rich person somewhere found a way to make more money, that involved “downsizing.”
If all of this is mediated by a spirit of kindness, then that’s better. But in my lifetime, I’d say the opposite has happened. We somehow have internalized the message that might makes right, and the feeling that being poor or lower-middle-class is somehow shameful and is that person’s “fault,” i.e., an indicator of some sort of character flaw. A very harsh time, I think.
I was lucky because I was raised in Chicago, in a working neighborhood, and worked my whole life and never really had a ton of money — well, lucky and unlucky I guess, plus inefficient. But having a real life opens a person’s eyes to the truth of that great Terry Eagelton line: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.”
Q. What is the subject of your talk here?
A. I’m going to read something from the new book and talk some about the artistic process, I think.
Q. How optimistic are you about the future of literature? I ask this in the context of what you’re seeing when you go to colleges to give talks and what you see in your own students.
A. I am very optimistic. It is the great blessing of teaching for a living, especially in a great program like the one at Syracuse. (Last year we got 566 applications for six fully-funded spots). You are constantly being reminded that talent and a love for literature recur in every generation. These kids are SO bright and curious and hard-working. I love being around them. My experience has been that this generation is generally pretty wonderful – they seem (if I could generalize) sweet and open, and very interested in literature. It really gives me hope. I have met some incredible young readers and writers in my travels, and what really impresses me is this general spirit of moral openness — feels to me much healthier and positive than when I was in college (circa 1766, and the Revolutionary War looming and all of that).
Q. You’re obviously a very busy man and I wonder what your typical day is like.
A. These days no two are alike, it seems. But a perfect day is just wandering over to my writing shed and staying there for six or seven hours. But since Tenth of December came out in January I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, which I also enjoy. Hopefully things will slow down soon and I can really get back to work.
Q. Can you shed any light on what you’re working on next?
A. Well, I’m not sure what it is yet. It’s pretty long and has some very dull patches, punctuated with some sections that are, as of right now, blurry and unintelligible, while certain places are sloppily written and full of logical holes. So that’s why I need to get some writing time in.
George Saunders will speak Monday at 5 p.m. at the Memorial Field House Auditorium Room 2100. The talk is free. Immediately afterward there will be a reception and book signing at Libbey Hall. Information: 41-530-2318.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: rlockwood@theblade or 419-724-6159.